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Stereotype Threat and Social Cues

Posted on: April 23rd, 2015 by learningws No Comments

Claude M. Steele’s book Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect us is an enlightening psychological approach to learning-barriers like stereotype threat, which offers cutting-edge ideas to scenarios that we are likely to encounter at Minneapolis Community & Technical College and beyond. The quality of the research that is documented and analyzed in this text is incredibly valuable because it not only directly relates to the work that we do as tutors in the Writing Center, by discussing minority underperformance in higher education, but can also be applied to virtually any social setting that one can imagine. I chose to focus specifically on chapter 8, “The Strength of Stereotype Threat: The Role of Cues,” to both hone in on a smaller portion of the text, and also because I was particularly fascinated by the way that one can and often does perceive stereotype threat, which is through social cues.

Steele gives the example of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor being the first and only female Court Justice until Ruth Ginsburg joined the bench twelve years later, and how being the only female on the bench affected her professional life. She called the experience “asphyxiating” (Steele 134), due to the added pressure because she was always viewed as a female judge, rather than a judge that happened to be female. O’Connor was a minority as a woman in her work setting, and she had social expectations to both embrace and reject her female identity as a judge. Once Ginsburg joined the bench, O’Connor said the difference was “night and day” (Steele 134), and the media interest in her being a female Justice, died down. Tragically, the stereotype threat was passed like a baton onto Justice Ginsburg after O’Connor retired, again reinforcing that this type of social pressure is very real and very possible in virtually any social setting.

A study that Steele used to illustrate a similar situation to Ginsburg’s and O’Connor’s, was conducted by an organizational psychologist at Harvard named Richard Hackman and his associate Jutta Allmendinger, in which they examined women in symphony orchestras around the globe–a population where females are often outnumbered by their male counterparts. They found that women in orchestras that were 90-99% male, gave similar accounts to former Justice O’Connor: feeling an “intense pressure to prove themselves and to fit a male model of what a good orchestra member is” (Steele 137). It wasn’t until the demographic reached about 40% female in the orchestra, that women claimed feeling a “critical mass,” that is, where they no longer felt like minorities.

Steele attempts to pinpoint the cause of this discomfort, and proposes that the amount of stereotype threat one feels is based upon the number of cues we perceive based upon identity contingencies. In O’Connor’s case, the fact that she was the only woman amongst a workforce of men was the cue that underscored her identity contingency and ushered in the stereotype threat. Steele suggests that what determines if and how much the impact of identity threat is felt is “more than individual traits, it is cues, contingency-signaling cues in a setting” (139). Age cues can manifest in the workplace. Race cues can appear in a classroom. Gender cues can be summoned at a family gathering. Cues can be subtle, which make them difficult to measure by those not perceiving them, but that does not mean that they are any less significant to those who feel them.

Steele and an associate did an experiment, in which they created two newsletters from phony Silicon Valley corporations, and asked subjects to evaluate how likely they could see themselves working in that particular setting. One of the newsletters depicted a workforce with few people of color, and also included a diversity policy of “color-blindness.” The other newsletter showed a larger number of people of color, and stated its diversity policy as “valuing diversity.” Interestingly, white people overwhelmingly said they would feel comfortable in either setting, which reinforced the theory that the dominant social group is much less likely to feel discomfort or stereotype threat in a variety of social settings. However, people of color overwhelmingly said they would choose the company that pictured more people of color and that valued diversity. Steele’s research also concluded that when one is experiencing stereotype threat, there is a physiological reaction as well, such as an elevated heart rate, blood pressure and sweating (149).

In response to all this data, I can only acknowledge that from my own personal experience, I have and do pay attention to cues in an attempt to assess my own level of comfort or stereotype threat in a particular social setting. I have experienced stereotype threat and understand the pressure that comes with feeling like a representative for an entire demographic, and I do notice a physiological discomfort that accompanies a more extreme situation. I think that at MCTC, and more specifically, in the Learning Center, it should remain a top priority to employ a staff that is as diverse as the student population of the campus, and the city that it rests in. I believe that the Writing Center is successful because our tutors are diverse in virtually every identity contingency imaginable and trained to do the quality work that MCTC has earned a reputation for producing.

–Alexei, MCTC Writing Tutor


Works Cited

Steele, Claude. “The Strength of Stereotype Threat: The Role of Cues.” Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. 134-51. Print.

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